Silk Reeling

The Third Rep: 2002-08-26
by Jerry Karin

Much of the literature available in English about the topic of silk reeling is of the puff piece sort, leaving one with the impression that silk reeling is important but failing to provide much in the way of concrete, down-to-earth information. I came across an excellent and important article in Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, a 1963 book by Shen Jiazhen and Gu Liuxin. What follows is a translation of the silk reeling section of the first chapter of that book (this part was written by Shen Jiazhen). I think that practitioners of all styles will find this quite interesting. This translation is something of a work in progress. I would enjoy hearing your comments and corrections.

Silk reeling is a subject rarely talked about in Yang family taiji. Though you don’t hear much discussion of the topic under this name, actually Yang style also does contain most of the same elements elaborated as silk reeling in other styles (though the shape of the hands in Yang Chengfu style – fingers slightly curved, palms slightly extended – is different from that shown in figure 1 below).


The Third Characteristic: Movement with Spiraling, Forward and Backward Silk Reeling

Boxing manuals dictate:

  1. Moving energy (yun4 jing4) is like pulling silk
  2. Moving energy is like unwinding silk (silk reeling)
  3. As you open and extend as well as draw in, you must never depart from the taiji [symbol shape]
  4. Once the most subtle hand begins to traverse a taiji [circle], the traces of it are completely transformed into nothingness.

From the 4 rules listed above we can see, Tai Chi Chuan movements must be in a shape like pulling silk. Pulling silk [from a cocoon] is done by a circular motion, and because it combines pulling straight and circling, naturally it forms a spiraling shape, which is the unification of the opposites of straight and curved. Silk reeling energy or pulling silk energy both refer to this idea. Because in the process of unreeling, extending out and pulling back the four limbs likewise produce a sort of spiraling shape, therefore the boxing manuals say that whether in large, extended movements or compact, small movements, one must absolutely never depart from this type of Tai Chi energy which unites opposites. Once one has trained in this thoroughly, this silk reeling circle tends to become smaller the more one practices, until one gets to the realm where there is a circle but no circle is apparent, at which point it is known only by intent. 1 This is why the third characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan is that it is an exercise which unifies opposites with silk reeling, both forward and backward.

I. The Essence of Movement Like Silk Reeling

When we say in Tai Chi Chuan the movements must be like unreeling silk, or like pulling silk, these two images both mean that the shape of the movements is like a spiral. At the same time that this spiraling must go in a curve – much like the way a bullet follows the spiral rifling in a gun barrel so that as it moves through space it has an inherent turning in a spiral shape – it also has a trajectory along another line like that of the bullet hitting a target. Silk reeling energy in Tai Chi Chuan has this same kind of quality.

As we have already explained, movements must be like silk reeling, but how in our actual movements are we to realize this theory? In fact it’s quite ordinary and simple: within the requirements for the entire movement, as you move, the palms rotate from facing inward to outward or from facing outward to inward, 2 causing them to form a shape like the Tai Chi symbol (see figure 1). At the same time, owing to the rotation of the palms inward and outward, there is manifest in the upper body a turning of the wrists and upper arms and in the lower body a turning of the ankles and legs 3, and in the torso this is manifested as turning of the waist and backbone. Combining the three, this forms a curving line turning in space with its “root in the feet, commanded by the waist, and manifested in the fingers”. This is a requirement which we must achieve in Tai Chi Chuan. Because of this the boxing manuals particularly point out that whether in broadly extending out or in shrinking and drawing in, we can never for a moment depart from the Tai Chi energy of rotating the palms and turning the wrists and upper arms. This is precisely like the way the earth turns on its own axis at the same time it moves in a curve around the sun. That is why Tai Chi energy is not circling in a plane but rather spiraling upward in three dimensions.

Figure 1. Forward and Backward Silk Reeling
(Larger version)

Figure 1 Explanation:

1. The solid line is shun (forward) silk reeling and the dotted line is ni (backward) silk reeling

2. The numbered points on the chart are the places where the shun and ni silk reeling alternate

A. Left hand silk reeling B. Right hand silk reeling

II. The Function of Moving Energy in Silk Reeling Style Spirals

Figure 3. Spiraling Pulling Silk Movement

Figure 2. Simple Curve Movement

If as you practice Tai Chi the hands just extend out straight and retract straight without rotating the palms and the legs bow forward and sit backward without an accompanying left and right turning, this will produce the defect of directly resisting force with force. (see figure 2). In order to correct this defect, we must use spiraling energy. Because a spiraling curve leading a radius is transforming; if any pressure pushes against this spiraling pole it can easily lead the pressure into emptiness and so transform it. This is a scientific way to transform energy. From figure 3 you can see the function of it.

This spiral style of silk reeling is where “Tai Chi” gets its name. This type of spiraling exercise is uniquely Chinese and seldom found elsewhere in the world. From the viewpoint of physical training, this can help one make “all the joints link up” as you move and push 4 and from there advance to the realm of ‘matching inner and outer’ and ‘if one part moves all parts move’. This also has the function of creating a kind of massage for the internal organs. At the same time it stimulates the spirit manifested externally, strengthens the cerebral cortex, as well as strengthening the entire body structure and organs.

In addition silk reeling energy has important functioning for martial applications. The core of Tai Chi Chuan martial applications is the understanding energy referred to in ‘know yourself and know your opponent’ and ‘know opportunities and advantages’. Understanding energy can be divided into two categories: (1) understanding with regard to your own energy, which is to say understanding the energies of your own movements, to be obtained from form practice; (2) understanding with regard to the energy of others, which is to say understanding the energy of the other person, to be obtained from push hands. If you want to know others you must first know yourself; this is the process by which we gain understanding. If you want to make the self-knowledge gained from form practice advance to the realm of high levels of development, then you must learn the skill of practicing whole-body movement. The skill of whole-body movement is learned from making inner and outer match up and making all the joints connect up together, and these two are produced from spiral style silk reeling movements. Thus for martial applications, silk reeling energy is extremely important.

III. The Types of Silk Reeling Energy and their Essential Points

Shun Silk Reeling        <---- Basic Silk Reeling ---->        Ni Silk Reeling
                            Positional Silk Reeling
left-right        up-down       in-out        big-small        advance-retreat

Figure 4. Twelve types of silk reeling

According to qualities and capabilities, Tai Chi Chuan silk reeling energy can be divided into two basic types. The first is ‘forward’ (shun) silk reeling where the palms rotate from facing inward to facing outward. Within this group almost all consist of Peng (ward off) energy (see the solid lines in figure 1). The second type is ‘backward’ (ni) silk reeling where the palms rotate from facing outward to facing inward. Within this second group the bulk consists of L� (rollback) energies (see the dotted lines in figure 1). These two categories of silk reeling exist throughout the process of each Tai Chi Chuan movement, and are infused in it from beginning to end. As a result, within all moves is contained the alternation between the two energies: peng and l�; they are the basic contrasts within all movements and at the same time they transform into each other within a unified context. Because of differences in position and transformation, these two kinds of silk reeling can be further sub-divided by positioning into 5 types (see figure 4). Left-right and up-down positioned silk reeling together form a whole circle. Then if you add in in-out it makes the two-dimensional circle in a plane change to a three-dimensional circle, and that is precisely the quality that Tai Chi style spiral movement must have. Next, in order to have left and right returning to the beginning, connecting and following the opponent, all joints connected so the whole body works together as a unit, we add the two pairs big-small and advance-retreat, in order to satisfy special fitness and application needs. Therefore, in every movement of Tai Chi Chuan, above and beyond the basic ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ types of silk reeling, we have at least three pairs of positional silk reeling combined together. If you can only grasp this rule, as you circle in your movements you have a definite source of support for both learning and correction, making it all much easier. Whenever in your practice you feel that a move seems wrong or lacks energy, you can adjust the waist or legs to correct the spot where silk reeling is not appropriate, then you can correct the move. So getting a good grasp of the silk reeling can provide a tool for self correction. Let’s take a few examples to illustrate this.

(1) “Cloud hands” — This move, among the thirteen powers is the only one to include both doubled ‘forward’ changing into doubled ‘backward’ left and right large silk reeling. When you perform this move, the basic silk reeling of the two hands is ‘forward’ palms going from facing inward to outward, changing into ‘backward’ palms going from facing outward to inward. The positional silk reeling of cloud hands is left-right, up-down and a slight amount of in-out. Left-right and up-down make a circle in two dimension. If you then make the circling include a slight in-out, you can turn it into a three dimensional circle in space, enabling the qi to stick to the backbone.

(2) “White Crane Spreads Wings” — The basic silk reeling is one ‘forward’ one ‘backward’, which is a relatively common pattern in the form. The positional silk reeling is left-right, up-down, and in-out. Because it has one ‘forward’ one ‘backward’, as the left hand performs ‘backward’ silk reeling going in and down and the right hand performs ‘forward’ silk reeling going out and up, the combination of the two, according to the requirements for the connection between the two arms 5, results in right going up and left going down, a right ‘forward’ left ‘backward’ separate and ward off circle.

As the two examples above show, although the various movements of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have an awful lot of different shapes and different ways of transition, when analyzed from the point of view of their basic silk reeling, they are actually extremely simple. All the Tai Chi moves fall into one of three categories of silk reeling: “doubled ‘forward’”, “doubled ‘backward’” and “one ‘forward’ one ‘backward’”. If you use this method to analyse and work on the form you frequently practice, and put it into a chart format, this can become a good source of support for your practice. And with this kind of aid, you can become clear about the different kinds of energies, and achieve ‘inner and outer match up’ as well as ‘all the joints link together’ and thus on the basis of improving flexibility, attain to the proper requirements for correct postures.

IV. Getting a Grasp on Spiral Movement

Silk reeling, this third characteristic, is where Tai Chi gets its name, and functions as detailed above. That is why our predecessors, in order to help learners properly perform movements as though reeling silk, included a section in “Discussion of Tai Chi Chuan [Tai Chi Chuan Lun] devoted to this very subject as a practical summary of how to move energy. The first section discusses silk reeling energy. In order to get control of this third characteristic of Tai Chi, you just need to compare [your moves] to this portion as you practice and use it regularly as a standard when practicing the form, and then you can obtain correct postures and movements. Below we will summarize and explain this portion.

(1) Grasping the Third Characteristic Via Essential Spirit

A. “In each an every motion, the entire body must be light and nimble”. If you can raise your spirit, then you are able to avoid having dull and heavy thought processes; this is the way to achieve lightness. If your intent is able to change nimbly, then your intent will not get hung up on one point only; that is the way to achieve nimbleness. The first step to grasping silk reeling energy is for the entire body to be light and nimble during the process of movement. Only then can you set up favorable conditions to support silk reeling movements.

B. “In movement you must link all the joints together as a whole.” In moving like reeling silk, if you want to be light and nimble, it is particularly necessary to link together. This is an important environment for movement and must not be overlooked as you practice. For detailed analysis of this, please consult the section on the 5th characteristic of Tai Chi of the present chapter of this book.

C. “The spirit should be roused and the qi should be kept within.” 6 If the conscious mind cannot be concentrated on the movements and you think of other things then this will result in confused thought and clumsy spirit, and so the spirit will be difficult to rouse. At the same time you will also be unable to keep the qi within so as to follow the mind, and the result will be your qi and postures will be scattered, energy won’t be collected within, and the torso will move chaotically. Therefore, you must first and foremost anchor your thoughts to continuous and uninterrupted movement, and that way the spirit will naturally be roused. Next, you must make the breathing of the lungs coordinate with the movements. Because the spirit is roused, the qi is naturally kept within and doesn’t get scattered. When the qi isn’t scattered the spirit guides the head and inspires movement.

Summarizing the three requirements noted above, “In moving energy be light, nimble and linked together, with spirit roused and qi collected within” are mandatory essentials which must be grasped in order to grasp silk reeling energy.

(2) Grasping the Third Characteristic Via Energy Distinctions

A. “Don’t allow slippage.” When you utilize silk reeling energy, whether ‘going forward’ or ‘going backward’, endeavor to cause the 8 energies (ba men jing [translators note: earlier in the book identified as peng l�, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kan]) to move along the back of the spiraling curve. This is to say the spiraling contact surface must not be sometimes on the back of the curve, sometimes within the curve. This is the easiest defect to encounter in silk reeling. The moment you slip into the inside of the curve, not only do you weaken the peng energy, but you also lose the touch or contact quality of silk reeling. As a result, the moment you allow slippage, the energy cannot get to the contact surface of the spiral and you lose the silk reeling function of leading the opponent. (see figure 5).

Figure 5 Silk Reeling Slippage (text: “Slippage”)

Figure 6 Silk Reeling Indenting and Protrusion (left text: “Indenting” right text: “Protrusion”)

B. “Don’t allow indenting or protruding spots.” During the entire process, the route in which you employ silk reeling energy must be a smooth curve, forming smooth and even postures. At the same time, it is also required to be soft and rich in flexibility, and that is one way of getting rid of indenting or protruding spots. Even when you emit energy, you still must swing out like a supple whip. This way, because the body and hands are extended, the body and limbs are like an inflated tire, and in their contact with things have the ability to follow contours and stick against them. The moment you have indenting and protruding spots in moving energy, it creates corners or angles, producing defects of resisting force with force, and thus causes the movement of energy to lose its spiraling, turning function. (see figure 6).

C. “Don’t allow ending and resuming spots.” In the process of silk reeling, whether ‘forward’ or ‘backward’, always endeavor to reel to the end. When we say ‘to the end’ we mean not only arriving to the point where this move deploys its energy against its target but also to the place where it connects to the next move. Arriving at this point, via a folding transition 7, connect to the next silk reeling, taking the energy and connecting it to the next move. Since the energy does not end, there is no need for resumption. If you reel to halfway and the energy is cut off, and then resume it again – that is just wrong. Because once silk reeling has ending and resuming, this is a crack or opening. This crack or opening not only loses the function of leading the opponent, but also allows an opportunity and an advantage for the opponent. That is why we say this is not permitted in moving energy and silk reeling. (see figure 7). Beyond this, even when you emit energy, although there is a cutting off and resuming, you still must have the requirement: “the energy ends but the intent doesn’t, the intent ends but the spirit can connect.” This is what is known as [seemingly] cutting off but connecting back up again.

Figure 7 Silk Reeling Must Not Have Ending and Resuming
(upper and lower text: “This section must not have ending or resuming)
(Left and right text: ” Transitional folding area)
(left and right sides encircled word: “Slow”)
(Upper middle: Slow —>speeding up energy —> Fast)
(Lower middle: Fast <--- speeding up energy <--- Slow)

In summary the three entries above explain how in the process of silk reeling, which is also the process of moving energy, you must not have the defects of slippage, indenting or protruding, or ending and resuming. If even one of these three defects is present, you will be unable to deploy the proper functions of silk reeling energy. This is a problem which you must not ignore in your practice.

In order to facilitate grasping this topic, I will now summarize the requirements:

(1) Silk reeling energy is the source of the name ‘Tai Chi Chuan’. Without silk reeling energy we would not be able to make the energy circle round the body and limbs so all tend to rise upward, attaining to completion in one qi.

(2) We need to understand the requirement to ‘link everything together’. Not only does moving energy require going through all the joints, it also needs to be sent through the muscles and sinews above and below the joints. This is the function of spiraling silk reeling.

(3) Tai Chi Chuan has a pair of basic silk reeling categories as well as five pairs of positional types of silk reeling which make up one of the best tools for learning and teaching Tai Chi.

(4) ‘Move energy like reeling silk’ can only be accomplished under the conditions of lightness and nimbleness and linking everything together. At the same time, the spirit must be roused and qi kept within.

(5) In the use of silk reeling energy, you must avoid the three defects of slippage, indenting and protruding, and ending and resuming.


[author's footnotes from original Chinese]

[1] In the unique small-frame Tai Chi of Yang Shaohou in his later years, one could only observe the emitting of energy and not the moving of it. This was because the circle of movement for energy was so small that you could not see it; one could only observe the emitting of it. That is the fullest development of circles so compact they were invisible.

[2] When we refer to rotating the palms from facing inward to facing outward or from facing outward to facing inward, we are using the index finger as the standard. For example in figure 1, when the hand goes from point 1 to point 2, the index finger rotates from inside to outside, so that is called shun (going forward). When the hand goes from point 2 to point 3, the index finger rotates from outside to inside so it is deemed ni (going backward).

[3] When we refer to the trajectory of the legs in silk reeling, we are using the the turning direction of the knee as the standard. So when the knee circles diagonally from close in to the crotch forward and turning outward and down, or starting from out away from the crotch circles diagonally backward turning inward and going upward, this is deemed shun (forward). When the knee circles diagonally from out away from the crotch forward turning in and up, or when the knee circles diagonally from in close to the crotch backward turning outward and down, this is deemed ni (backward).

[4] “All the joints link together” is the fifth characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan.

[5] The connection between the two arms means as you move, it is as though there is a string connecting the two arms, and when one arm moves, the other arm also moves under the condition that it is able to keep the string tight with peng energy. That is to say we need to always keep a peng energy between the two arms which makes them tend to pull apart.

[6] Spirit and qi can both be roused, and both can be kept within. That is why ‘Discussion of Tai Chi Chuan’ says: “If you want the spirit and qi to be roused, first raise the spirit, then the spirit does not get dispersed.”

[7] For the meaning of folding, see the 6th characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan. [maybe in a subsequent column we can look at this]

Thanks to Rocky Yang for providing a cleaned-up version of figure 1.

Translation Copyright © 2002 Gerald N. Karin. All rights reserved.

Yang Zhenduo’s Disciples

Master Yang Zhenduo is proud to announce and acknowledge the following people as his Disciples.

These individuals have studied and promoted tai chi for many years.

Disciples Group Picture

Disciples Name List, 杨振铎传承弟子

  • Hu Buyun, 胡步云
  • Yang Yongfen, 杨永芬
  • Guo Jiansheng, 郭建生
  • Ge Jingang, 戈金刚
  • Xie Wende, 谢文德
  • Wang Dexing, 王德星
  • Gao Junsheng, 高俊生
  • Zhang Suzhen, 张素珍
  • Yang Liru, 杨礼儒
  • Miao Guangzhao, 苗光照
  • Li Chunhou, 李存厚
  • Sun Gangchen, 孙刚臣
  • Cheng Xiangyun, 程相云
  • Yang Chunru, 杨春如
  • Zhou Yazhen, 周亚珍
  • Lin Qiuya (Malaysia), 林秋雅(马来西亚)
  • Wang Wen, 王 文
  • Zhang Guiying, 张桂英
  • Hua Xiaolong, 滑小龙
  • Mei Mei Teo (Sweden), 张美美(瑞典)
  • Duan Yinglian, 段英莲
  • Li Shoutang, 李寿堂
  • Li Xiuying, 李秀英
  • Han Hoong Wang (USA), 王涵蓉(美国)
  • Yan Fengxiang, 阎凤祥
  • Jia Chengping, 贾承平
  • Li Qimei, 李七梅
  • Qiao Rongjian, 乔荣建
  • Tian Xianwen, 田宪文
  • Song Bin, 宋 斌
  • Geng Ying, 耿 英
  • Yang Wenshen, 杨文升
  • Luo Haiping, 罗海平
  • Yao Junfang, 药俊芳
  • Wang Baixuan, 王白玄
  • Jian Guiyan, 简桂妍
  • Liang Xiufang, 梁秀芳
  • Niu Xinzhong, 牛新中
  • Yang Shufang, 杨树芳


The Third Rep: 2001-02-12
by Jerry Karin

Well, time to whip out the old notepad and scribble a new third rep column. Having had my posterior flamed from here to Yongnian over a previous column entitled Some Other Stuff and subsequent postings in the same vein on the discussion board, you would think I would know better by now, but apparently once begun the habit of letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I shall’ grows ever easier.

Back around 1972 when I was a student at Berkeley, my instructor in a class on Buddhism invited a very high-ranking monk in the hierarchy of a large Buddhist sect in South Korea to speak to the class one day. The monk, a kind, gentle and humble person, used the hour to tell us the story of a famous monk in Korean Buddhist history. I heard this tale nearly thirty years ago so I am undoubtedly going to mangle some of the details of the story, but I think I have got the gist of it.

The events in the story took place early in Korean Buddhist history when teachings about Buddhism were difficult to get in Korea and it was the dream of many a searcher to voyage abroad to China, where they hoped to find more advanced knowledge about Buddhism. A young monk, embarking on this course, traveled from his home to a seaport to begin his long journey to China. The evening before he was to board a ship to China, having had a meal at a local temple, he wandered out into the warm night and came to a beach, where he decided to spend the night. In the middle of the night he awoke with a fierce thirst which simply could not be denied, and started looking around trying to find a puddle of rainwater from which to drink. There was a dim moon out and he suddenly spied its reflection in a large container of water, sitting on a log. Delighted, he picked it up and tasted it. He found it the most delicious thing he had ever tasted and gulped down long draughts of the water until his powerful thirst was satisfied, whereupon the sleepy monk lay back down and was soon snoring.

As the sun rose on the morning his great journey was to begin he awoke and looked around for the container of water that he had found the night before. To his dismay he discovered that he had been sleeping in one of those ‘air burial’ grounds to which Buddhists are partial, where decomposing bodies of the dead are left in the open for birds and animals to eat. The log was a corpse and the container of water which had tasted so delightful the night before turned out to be a human skull, with some vestiges of flesh still clinging to it. His horror rose in him physically and he vomited again and again. Suddenly he experienced a moment of awakening about the nature of existence, illusion and reality. The monk never boarded the ship for China. The answers which it had once seemed necessary to search out far away in another land turned out to lie within himself. This monk went on to become one of the great founders of Buddhist study in Korea.

Now from the sublime to what I hope will not be too ridiculous. I first met the Yangs in 1993, at a seminar they gave at Hood College in Maryland. I remember well my first glimpse of Yang Zhenduo. Chris Pei was escorting Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun to the opening dinner reception. A bunch of students gathered around to greet them and Yang Zhenduo made a little impromptu speech, saying we had a great deal to cover in one week, but that he knew we would succeed because we would work hard….. He spoke in a beautiful, pristine northern mandarin, very reminiscent of my first Chinese language teacher, who had grown up in Peking. His manner, diction, everything about him made him seem the most traditional Chinese person I had ever met, though I had lived in Taiwan for many years. I was powerfully intrigued, and the seminar itself lived up to the expectation I formed at that moment. Here was a teacher steeped in the real tradition.

Over the years I continued to attend seminars, all the while trying to come up with a scheme which would allow me to go to China for an extended period of time and really learn the secrets of Yang style taiji which the Yangs clearly had in such abundance. The demands of work and family never did allow me to follow through on the idea. Then one day a couple of years ago I learned the most astonishing news: through no effort of my own, and unbeknownst to me, Yang Jun had been preparing for some time to move to my very doorstep here in Seattle! I couldn’t believe my luck. When he arrived here I went to classes whenever I could. I learned quite a bit. Still, the demands of work and family did not go away. Yang Jun had moved here but I was still the same person, working full time, taking care of a child, spending time with my wife, doing all the mundane things I have always done. The truth was I rarely had time to attend classes. Practice time was also difficult to find. Gradually my dream of getting the real secrets from the Yangs faded.

About a year ago I had an extended period of unemployment between jobs. Unfortunately, for most of that time, Yang Jun was away giving seminars around the world. I subbed for him in some of his classes in Seattle. Yang Jun had asked me to make a new translation of Yang Chengfu’s essay, “A Talk on Practice” for the Association newsletter, which I did (you can see it in the info section of this web site). Translating focuses your attention on the content in a way that casual reading seldom does. In the essay Yang Chengfu mentions that you really should practice the barehand form seven or eight times a day. I remembered how good it felt working out many hours a day during the seminars. Since I had some time while I was job-hunting, I decided to try seven reps a day. The idea is to consciously work on the ten essentials while doing all those reps. This for me was the beginning of learning the real secrets of taijiquan. I discovered that it had never been necessary to go to China, wonderful as that would have been. Yes, you do need to get the basics from a good teacher. The real secrets, however, are revealed by practice.

Palm Methods (Zhang Fa)

From Yang Zhenduo’s
1997 Zhong Guo Yang Shi Taiji, pp. 33-36
Translation by Louis Swaim

The palm methods are a sub-category of the hand methods. The palm methods can be broadly divided into two classes, comprising approximately nine types.

The first class, “seated wrist upright palm” (zuo wan li zhang xing) contains five types of palm methods:

  • standing palm (li zhang)
  • square palm (zheng zhang)
  • downward palm (fu zhang)
  • outward turned palm (fan zhang)
  • level palm (ping zhang)

The second class, “straight extended” (zhi shen xing), contains four types of palm methods:

  1. upward palm (yang zhang)
  2. inclined palm (ce zhang)
  3. downward hanging palm (chui zhang)
  4. straight palm (zhi zhang)

One: The special characteristics of “seated wrist upright palm” are that when the palm extends forth it must always have the wrist seated and the palm upright. As for its technique, above all, the wrist of the hand must sit solidly. Then, allow the palm of the hand to stand up; that is, lift it upwards, and gradually let the fingers point up and the heart of the palm face forward. When the standing up of the palm reaches a certain degree, it will then produce a kind of internal sensation (nei zai de ziwo ganjue). This type of sensation is called “energy sensation” (jin gan). If the practitioner’s physical training has a firm foundation, this type of “energy sensation” can immediately thread throughout the entire body. Beginning students, however, may manifest a local sensation of stiffness (the hands and arms ache or become numb).

The above two categories of sensation are entirely different. In light of this, beginning students should above all avoid raising the palm insufficiently, with the production of weak, hollow, and nebulous sensations. However, a stiffness or dullness produced by an excessive lifting upward is also not the goal of our pursuit. If you can only feel the sensation of energy, then if it is not right, you can correct it. But if you can’t sense it then it will be empty, and cannot be self-adjusted. This palm method controls, in a clearly established order, the containing of energy (jin), the expression of vital spirit (jingshen de biaoda), and the achievement of hardness [within] softness, with the result that it will penetrate [or 'thread'] from joint to joint (jie jie guan chuan), and the entire body will be coordinated. In order to train well in Yang Style Taijiquan, you must seek this “energy sensation” in the upright palm.

The following are a few methods of the “seated wrist upright palm”.

  1. Standing palm (li zhang) When the fingers point up, or incline upward, and the palm does not face squarely forward, but in another direction, this is called standing palm. An example is the upper palm in Brush Knee Twist Step, and Step Back Repulse Monkey; the lower palm of Jade Maiden Threads the Shuttles, etc.
  2. Square palm (zheng zhang) When the fingers point up, and the palm faces forward squarely, this is called square palm. Examples are the Push (An) in Grasp Swallow’s Tail, and in Like Sealing As if Closing, etc.
  3. Downward palm (fu zhang) When the heart of the palm faces down, or obliquely downward, no matter what direction the fingers point to, this is called downward palm. Examples are the lower palm in Brush Knee Twist Step, Wild Horse Parts its Mane, White Crane Displays Wings; the left palm in Punch Downward, and Punch to Groin, etc.
  4. Outward turned palm (fan zhang) When the fingertips point to the side, or obliquely to the side, and the palm faces outward, this is called outward turned palm. Examples are the upper palm in Jade Maiden Threads the Shuttles, White Crane Displays Wings; and the palm as it turns from Ward Off (Peng) to Pluck (Cai) in Cloud Hands.
  5. Level palm (ping zhang) Regardless of the direction the fingers point, the palm faces down or circles levelly to the left or right. Examples are the transitions to Single Whip, or Observe Fist Under Elbow.

The above palm methods are all based on the seated wrist and upright palm form. If, when performing these postures, one does not seat the wrists and make the palm upright, there will appear in the body a looseness and softness, a nebulous emptiness. Experiment with this, then you will be able to make an appraisal.

Two: The special characteristics of “straight extended” and its techniques are: You only need to have the palm extended straight (not rigidly stiff) — let it be level, let it be expanded and drawn out, then you will have it. This does not require that the wrist be seated and the palm upright, but it also has the self-sensation of internal energy (nei jin de ziwo ganjue), and a penetration throughout the entire body. Although there are differences with the seated wrist upright palm in the expression in shape and form, as well as in methodology, the action and results produced are the same. The two are interdependent and work in mutual coordination. One should regard them equally.

The following are a few methods of the “straight extended” palm:

  1. Upward palm (yang zhang) In cases where the heart of the palm is up, or obliquely upward, and the fingers point forward or incline forward, this is upward palm. Examples are the lower palm in Step Back Dispatch Monkey, and High Pat on Horse; or the upper palm in Oblique Flying, or Piercing Palm [of High Pat on Horse with Piercing Palm].
  2. Inclined palm (ce zhang) When the palm is toward the inside or inclined to the inside, regardless of what direction the fingers point, this is called inclined palm. Examples are Left and Right Ward Off in Grasp Swallow’s Tail, and Ward Off in Cloud Hands, etc.
  3. Downward hanging palm (chui zhang) When the palm is facing in or inclined toward the inside, and the fingertips point down or incline downward, this is called downward hanging palm. Examples are the two arms hanging down in the Preparation Posture, or when the arms orbit down in rounded arcs, etc.
  4. Straight palm (zhi zhang) When the palms are down or inclined downward, regardless of the direction the fingers point, this is called straight palm. Examples are the turning transition from Push (an) to Single Whip, the two arms rising upwards in the Beginning Posture, etc.

When the Taijiquan postures are in the process of circling, there emerges a reciprocal alternating and advancing of the various palm methods. For example, in transitioning from White Crane Displays Wings to Brush Knee Twist Step, the right arm circles down from above to in front of the thigh (kua). The palm is up, the fingers toward the front, forming an upward palm. Continuing down in a circular arc, the palm turns toward the outside, the fingers pointing down, forming a downward hanging palm. Now again the arm bends upward, turning the fingers to point up, the palm facing obliquely outward, forming a standing palm.

Regarding whether in the above discussion there is a relationship between the palm methods (zhang fa) and the proper hand shape (shou xing), they both have an indivisible relationship. As to hand shape, it has already been explained in the “Ten Essential of the Art of Taijiquan”: “The palm should slightly extend (zhang yi wei shen), the fingers should slightly bend (zhi yi wei qu)”.* However, in actual practice, there is still another requirement: “The spaces between the fingers should be slightly open “. This is also important, and requires that the fingers not be gathered together, and also that they not stretch wide apart. In this way the outer shape and appearance of the palm of the hand will increasingly tend toward perfection, there will be hardness contained within, and it will still have a pliable outward appearance, natural — refined and elegant — one could say that form and spirit are complete and prepared (xing shen ju bei). It is hoped that students will memorize (mo shi), comprehend (ti wu), and ponder (chuai mo).

One’s ability to accomplish each of the palm methods rests entirely on the foundation of “fang song” (relaxing, loosening). If you are able to properly understand the significance of “fang song”, and your practice is correct, there is sure to be a good result. Because of this, one must have proper guidance in one’s training — only then will you be able to utilize each type of palm method correctly, and gain the result of one palm representing the entire body.

Translator’s Note:

[*] I looked for this sentence in Yang Chengfu’s “Ten Essentials of the Art of Taijiquan” (Taijiquan Shu Shi Yao), but it does not appear there. It does appear in Yang’s “A Discussion of Taijiquan Practice” (Taijiquan zhi Lianxi Tan).

Relaxation (Fang Song)

Excerpted from Yang Zhenduo’s
Zhong Guo Yang Shi Taiji, 1997, ‘Thoughts on Practice’ p163-164
Translated by Jerry Karin

2. Earlier in this book I have already talked quite a bit on the subject of ‘fang song’ or relaxation. Let’s connect related concepts by separately mentioning the terms ‘soft’ (rou) , ‘limp’ (ruan), ‘strength’ (li) and ‘energy’ (jing) so that these can be distinguished, which is helpful in practicing taijiquan.

In martial arts, we often hear the analogy made between ‘steel’ and ‘energy’ (jing). Likewise, ‘coarse strength’ (juo li) can be likened to ‘iron’, because ‘steel’ comes from ‘iron’ and the source of ‘energy’ is also naturally from ‘coarse strength’. Coarse strength is natural strength and is an inherent product of the human body. Coincidentally, the current graph used in Chinese for ‘energy’ (jing) includes ‘strength’ (li) with ‘work’ (gong) added to it. I am not sure if this was really the intent of those who designed this graph, but looking at this graph can surely help serve to explain the relationship of the two.

‘Adding work’ or refining, refers to the way in which, during the process of production, we use the method of high temperature forging; correspondingly for coarse strength we use the method of relaxation (fang song) to remove the stiffness of coarse strength. Both are means to an end.

The process of refinement causes the two to manifest something which seems contradictory to its original nature. For example the water used for tempering steel and drinking water seem similar, yet there is a difference in the nature of the two. The water used to temper steel – like the removal of the stiffness in coarse strength – brings about a flexible resilience. Drinking water, on the other hand, is ‘limp’; it does not have this nature of bringing about flexible resilience. Therefore when we refer to ‘coarse strength’ – which has had its stiffness removed – as soft but not limp, it is because ‘soft’ has this flexible resilience, which is to say it includes within it the ingredient for ‘energy’ . This is just what the late Yang Chengfu meant by “Tai Chi Chuan is the art of letting hardness dwell within softness and hiding a needle within cotton”. If the factor of ‘energy’ is not present, this is ‘limp’. ‘Limp’ is not the same thing as ‘soft’.

After iron has been beaten thousands of times and refined hundreds of times, it changes its nature and becomes steel. Steel is firm internally and highly reflective externally. Iron by contrast is not only less flexible but its external appearance is rough. ‘Coarse strength’ , after undergoing persistent training for many days, months, and years can also be made to change its nature and become ‘energy’ (jing). When ‘energy’ (jing) is manifested it is soft, flexible and strong and able to embody the coordinated activity of the entire body. When ‘coarse strength’ is manifested the movements are stiff and the response is in a portion of the body only, rather than the whole body. The two are extremely different.

Relaxation and training should both be conscious (or purposive). That is just what our predecessors meant by “consciously (purposely) relax and unconsciously (unintentionally) create hardness”. If one can really achieve relaxation (fang song), it will be transmitted into the combining of the body activity with the ten essentials, naturally creating the material conditions so that ‘energy’ (jing) will arise according to the requirements of the moves. If you try to create ‘energy’ (jing) directly, paradoxically you become limited by ‘energy’ (jing). When we say “use intent rather than strength”, the main idea is that you should not use ‘coarse strength’ but rather ‘energy’ (jing).

Translation Copyright © 2001 Yang Zhenduo. All rights reserved

A Personal Odyssey

The Third Rep: 2000-12-25
Guest Commentary by Carol Ann (Chidlaw) Bauer

The practice of Tai Chi has been for me a personal odyssey. Through the last six years of serious practice, it has become a metaphor for all the elements of my life — physical, emotional, spiritual, and the inevitable blending of all those things.

To say that practicing this art is good for health is a gross understatement. We must consider the fact that there are lots of good exercise systems out there, some of them producing bigger muscles faster, quicker aerobic results, and closer-to-instant weight loss, these concepts being the American dream called Fitness. So why would one embark on the monumental task of memorizing a sequence of 108 movements heretofore foreign to our bodies — not to mention weapons forms! — (I mean, who uses a turn-around technique that requires one to turn the foot in from the hip joint while balancing primarily on the other foot, while reaching behind with one arm and pushing with the other, and in the end not toppling over, in everyday life? What on earth is Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, anyway?), when one could drop into a quick kick-boxing class and never have to engage a brain cell while sweating almost instantaneously?

And the aforementioned are the very people who drop into tai chi class and quickly drop back out, missing the very essence of what they probably need in their over-stressed, preoccupied, anxiety-riddled lives. “It makes me crazy,” said one departing Type A. “Why in heaven’s name would I ever, EVER want to move that slowly?” Perhaps a glance in the medicine cabinet would hold a clue.

But learning to slow one’s internal pace to counterbalance a frenetic lifestyle is only one benefit of Tai Chi practice. Never mind lowered blood pressure, greater stamina, improved joint flexibility, and an almost miraculous recovery of ability to focus mentally. There is something beyond all that. It is an intangible, indefinable something that … how shall I say it? Perhaps the best way is to call it a changed perspective.

My life view, my perspective of the events that come to me unbidden, has changed dramatically. From a woman who had to MAKE things happen, I have become a woman who gracefully (well, at least sometimes) allows life to flow through me and monitors the reaction that before would have immobilized me. Just thirty minutes of Tai Chi practice feels like a small instant in my life, and leaves me both full and hungry for more.

When young, the most flattering descriptive used about me was, “You have such high energy that it’s just exhausting to be around you.” These days, a young friend who sometimes comes to me for mentoring recently said, “Well, you’re just so very, very calming, just so CALM.” (No, it is not old age. I am not THAT old.)

Of course I am in better shape than most of the population my age (okay, okay, I’m 55). Practice does have decided physical benefits. But T’ai Chi wasn’t a quick fix; it was a long, slow process that settled into my very bone marrow and has become a daily part of me. It’s the changed perspective that holds me true to this path. Without the martial arts morality, focus and discipline, I would be just another shooting star long since blipped out in its lightening-fast descent to earth. Now, rooted and grounded on the earth through long hours of T’ai Chi practice, it is only my spirit that soars to the heavens, while the body that Nature gave me continues to work smoothly from posture to posture … yes, in “real life”, too.

Bow Steps: Two Important Points

The Third Rep: 2000-07-01
by Jerry Karin

In Yang Zhenduo’s book, Zhongguo Yang Shih Taiji, 1997, for each move there is a section called “Important Points”. The important points are combined for left and right ward off. Points three and four of this group are particularly eloquent, and we include a translation of them here.

3. When you make a bow step, as the weight shifts from one foot to the other, you should pay attention to the symmetrical arrangement of the two opposing forces – one leg pushing and the other pushing back or resisting. Whether the front leg is pushing backward and the back leg resisting, or the back leg is pushing forward and the front leg resisting, the forces must be coordinated, so as to avoid pushing out too hard or resisting too hard, or pushing out emptily without any compensating resistance. The waist, if firmly in command, can propel the four limbs, cause the upper and lower body to work in concert, and better complete every move and posture. But if you fail to control the lower limbs and they do not match what is going on in the rest of the body, although the waist has the capability of commanding the four limbs, it’s no use. K So in the Tai Chi world when we particularly emphasize utilizing a whole-body movement, that is actually this matching of opposed forces, the mutually restricting coordination of the entire body. As people often say, ‘Tai Chi is a whole body exercise’ and is different from activities which involve moving sections or parts of the body only. I hope you will work hard to incorporate this point in your form.

4. Here’s how to step into the bow step: Whenever the foot which is stepping out descends to the floor, first touch the heel to the floor, next the toes grab the floor, and then finally, the knee bends and moves forward. During the entire process, as the weighted leg pushes forward and the empty leg resists, one sending and one receiving force, (especially in the case of of the resisting, empty leg) you must never stop pushing or resisting but you must also not push or resist too forcefully. If you stop one of the opposing forces then you will lose your balance and if you use too much force then you’ll be stiff; neither of these is good. If you can achieve just the right balance in this, it will create favorable conditions for upper and lower body to work in concert during transitional moves. When extending the weighted (back) leg to its ultimate position in a bow step, just as in the extension of an arm, extend until it is almost fully extended but not quite. If you over-extend then it becomes forced and looks stiff. If the back leg is bent too much, the pushing force cannot come out, and it will seem as if you have a lot of power but can’t use it. The resistance of the empty leg goes through a process of gradual engagement. First touch the floor with the heel, continue by allowing the flat of the foot to touch, then the toes grab the floor, and then let the knee bend forward, letting the bending knee and shin slightly incline forward and increasing the resistance from the front leg so as not to allow the knee to pass the toe. This way, with one leg pushing and one leg resisting, neither force subsiding or becoming too strong, the lower body will become a great deal stronger and more stable. Note that if the knee and shin of the forward leg are standing perpendicular to the ground then it is hard to utilize the resisting force and the back leg won’t be able to develop power in its push forward. If the knee goes past the toe, you’ll lose your balance and the back leg again won’t be able to develop much power Only when you make the knee and shin slightly incline forward, with the knee not going past the toe, can you thoroughly get the full strength of the two forces, pushing out and resisting, to come into play.

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Twenty-Character Motto

The Third Rep: 2000-04-18
by Jerry Karin

This week we published a short essay by Yang Zhenduo with his commentary on the Twenty-Character Motto. I think this is a very good tip for Tai Chi players – it really works! For those who have not heard this explained by Yang Zhenduo himself at one of the seminars, I thought I would add a few remarks of my own to help clarify (I hope) the meaning.

When Yang Zhenduo explains this at a seminar, he usually does a move such as right ward off. He then takes his left index finger and points it at the inside of his right elbow. The finger points in the same direction as the right elbow. He then mimes using the finger to push the elbow outward, and seminar participants can actually observe the elbow moving outward and downward, maybe an inch or so (it’s hard to quantify this but you can definitely see the elbow move outward). You can see the right shoulder relax downward too as the elbow goes outward. He sometimes turns and points to show that the same movement has opened up a space under the armpit. It seems to me that the movement outward is a combination of relaxing the shoulder downward and opening up the shoulder and elbow joints, so that the upper arm seems to grow in length. In any case, it’s just that easy. Anyone who practices tai chi can try it. When you do it correctly, there should be an immediate, noticeable sensation, which Yang Zhenduo describes in the essay. Try it!

Excerpt from Yang Zhenduo,
Yang Shih Taiji, 1997 (Requirement for upper limbs)
Translated by Jerry Karin;
Copyright Yang Zhenduo, 2000


Extend the elbows outward; leave a hollow in the armpits. The elbows pull down the tops of the shoulders, connect the wrists and carry along the fingers.

The Twenty-Character Motto is very brief, yet its meaning is very profound and worth pursuing. Although only the various parts of the upper limbs are mentioned, following this motto can set in motion a chain of causality in which changes here affect the other parts of the body. This connection is not just mental, but you can actually feel that precisely this movement of the upper limbs causes you to ‘hold the chest in’, which in turn induces ‘pulling up the back’, leading to ‘relaxation of waist and hips’ and ultimately bringing about ‘(movement proceeds) from feet to legs to waist’, so ‘all the joints are working interconnectedly as a whole’. You can get an internal sensation of the integration of all these principles and how they support each other. The sense of energy (jing4 gan3) created by this, and the sensation of the whole-body working together are things which every player must work toward and actually experience. This is crucial to successfully learning taiji. From this we can see that the Twenty-Character motto separately relates to every individual posture of taiji and as a whole determines the connected completion of the entire form. I hope that students will diligently seek to understand this, and experience the ‘sensation of energy’ induced by this ‘extend’,’hollow’,’pull down’, and ‘connect’. This will aid your overall level of training as well as the practice of connecting the internal and external.

Seminars with Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun

The Third Rep: 2000-04-07
by Jerry Karin

Seminars with Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun these days are typically 3 or 4 days for the entire 103 – move traditional, Yang style barehand form, followed by two or three days of instruction in one weapon: sabre or sword. Sometimes the format varies from this somewhat. So if you attend the whole seminar, such as year 2000 in Portland, August 5 thru 11, it’s a full seven days spent with the Yangs and others who love the art. Seven days of taiji classes (classes are generally in an air-conditioned gym or hall), practice outdoors as well as indoors, alone and with other taiji players, conversation and meals with various subsets of the group (can start out as big as 70 to 100 people and usually filters down to 30 to 40 for the weapon). Nighttime hanging out at the dorm, you’ll find people swapping stories, deep in discussion on some detail of the form, making music on guitars and other instruments, pushing hands in a quiet courtyard, chilling out in the room with the a/c cranked up and a good book…

Who goes? Several of the Yang Chengfu Center directors will generally be there. There will be a contingent of students from the hosting center. Quite a few students from all over the country and the rest of the world will be flying in. There must be 30 of us who attended the Hood College, Maryland seminar in 1993 and never fail to make one or two seminars per summer. There have always been a lot of good push hands players among the participants, including many champs.

Prerequisites? Most participants have learned some kind of taijiquan or other martial art before. Could it be done with no prior taiji or martial arts background? It might be a little hard to keep up.

Approximately 5 hrs of classroom instruction per day is split into two sessions: morning (starting perhaps 8 or 8:30) and afternoon (starting 2:30 or 3).

After class, there generally are organized practice sessions led by experienced players, such as a center director. Small groups of people can be found practicing taijiquan, taiji weapons, push hands, da lu and other forms throughout the day and evening.

East Brunswick, NJ center director Andy Lee:

“A seminar, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a group of supervised students doing research or advanced study. Why do I enjoy these seminars, and why do I continue to attend? I love to make new friends, to meet old ones, and to be totally immersed in the art. There’s not only the physical endurance of continuously doing the form, but also the mental work of correction and observation that I enjoy . In the morning, we all have breakfast, and talk. Talking about tai chi chuan, we discuss and share our opinions of the class. The fun of lining-up and learning Chinese, so we can say “HELLO”. The joy of holding the posture as Yang Laoshi moves through the lines trying to check each student. And the delightful way we can laugh. A group of supervised students doing research and advanced study of tai chi chuan with not only the watchful eyes of Yang Laoshi, but also the helpful eyes of other players. I cannot see myself do the form, but others can. Consequently, their opinions, be they new in the art or be they old, are valuable. I came to understand this philosophy at these seminars. Moving to the sound of tai chi chuan being chanted by Yang Laoshi, surrounded by sixty or seventy players, all moving together, all breathing together, all exuberant – it’s an experience! There is no better intoxication then the surround-sound of tai chi chuan. After lunch, practicing; before the session begins, practicing, and in the evening, practicing because I have no other responsibility but to practice. Attending a summer seminar is like going away for a spa vacation. Except that in this case, the spa is devoted to good people and phenomenal Tai Chi Chuan.”

Thanks to Andy Lee for the photo from the 1996 New York Seminar.

Want to share your stories or impressions from past seminars? Email them to me at and I will publish them here. Pictures would be wonderful.


Jerry, I’ve attended seminars the past two summers and have enjoyed them both very much. A friend and I first went down to the Winchester, VA seminar in July of 1998. While we had studied a variation of Yang style tai chi it was different from the traditional Yang family style. We studied hard and took many notes. It seemed a little overwhelming , yet it was very rewarding. Last year four of us went down to the seminar in NY. We all had a great time. People we met the year before were there; it was great to see them and talk of how we were doing with our tai chi. I found the second seminar to be even more beneficial to me than the first. I had a better understanding of the form and was able to get more of the details that Master Yang was explaining. I found it interesting that while it was the same 103 posture form Master Yang was teaching his explanations of the moves were from a different approach. In Virginia (1998) he talked more of the energy and proper posture. In NY (1999) he gave explanations from a more martial viewpoint. I enjoyed the different approaches to the form. I realized that you can always continue to grow and learn something new from each seminar. I have enclosed some photos I scanned in. [...]the photo of the group practicing is from NY 1999.

Michael R. Coulon.